Education is social justice, says Blair
In the second of his keynote election addresses, Mr Blair outlined a 21-point plan for improving the quality of British education, highlighting manifesto promises to reduce class sizes and provide nursery places for all four-year-olds.
Education is Labour's "number one priority", he told an invited audience at Birmingham University. "There has been no greater failing in the last 18 years than the failure to educate all our children to the highest standards. " Britain, he said, now lies 42nd in the world education league
Attempting to add a visionary note to what has so far been a cautious campaign, Mr Blair departed from his prepared speech, saying: "To those who say where is Labour's passion for social justice, I say education is social justice. Education is liberty. Education is opportunity. Education is the key not just to how we as individuals succeed and prosper, but to the future of this country."
Mr Blair maintained the party's tough stance on minimum standards, promising to sack poor teachers and revitalise failing schools, closing them down and giving them a fresh identity.
A Labour government would introduce new national targets in reading and arithmetic and would assess every five-year-old starting school. There would, he said, be "zero tolerance of failure".
Mr Blair also re-iterated his willingness to work with some Conservative ideas, including specialist schools, grammar schools and grant maintained schools - albeit in a changed format.
"I have no intention of waging war on any schools except failing schools. So far as the existing 160 grammar schools are concerned, as long as the parents want them, they will stay. GM schools will prosper. Church schools will too. We will tackle what isn't working, not what is."
This drew an immediate and personal attack from the Prime Minister, John Major, who accused Tony Blair of dishonesty for sending his son Euan to the grant-maintained Oratory School in London.
"What Mr Blair wants for his child is a place in a grant-maintained school, a type of school which Tory policies created, a type of school his party tried to stop, a type of school his party policies would end," said Mr Major, who was visiting Plymouth.
"Labour's manifesto is a shameless contract with hypocrisy - there is a giant gulf between the cosy facade of Labour policy and the spiteful reality that lies behind it."
Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader said that the promises from Labour and the Conservatives are meaningless without the finance to implement them. "Unless they are prepared to put the money in, those are merely words, and words come cheap," he said.
Only one strand of Mr Blair's speech went beyond Labour's manifesto - the plans for specialist schools. These, he said, would be developed to benefit a wider section of the school population than at present.
"We need to make the most of the expansion that is to come. The way to do this is to ensure that the expansion does not just benefit those admitted to the school but instead that the benefits are spread to as many children as possible at other schools. We want specialist schools to offer their specialist facilities - whether they be in music, science or languages - to all gifted children in an area, both during the normal school week and after hours and at weekends."
Calling for an end to tit-for-tat election sniping, Mr Blair's speech was comparatively free from attacks on the Conservative record. Problems with British education, he said, were deep-seated and could not be blamed solely on the past 18 years.
"These problems didn't just begin with the Conservative Government. They are historic and deep seated. A century ago European countries put education for the mass of the people, not just the lite, at the forefront of their strategies for national prosperity. In Britain the twentieth century has been a sorry saga of too little too late."